Friday, January 22, 2010

This is the text of the message offered at FBC OKC on January 17th. I am posting it a bit later than normal because of some technical issues with blogger. Sorry for the delay. Tom

I never actually met him, but it was easy to find him. He was always working on the wall. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was surrounded by a low stone wall. When I first arrived you could imagine that at one time it must have been something to see. It had been built in 1885 when the campus still housed Wake Forest College. But, by the time I arrived the wall was worn for the years and it shape was disrupted by stones pushed from place by the slow but sure impact of weather and the vines that had grown up around it and now weaved through it. Then he came. I now know that his name was Doug Buttram. The story, as I was told, says that that he when he arrived at seminary he did not have all of the money he needed to make it work – to cover the balance, he told them that he would rebuild the wall. The administration said “yes” and he went to work. I really cannot imagine how big the task must have seemed to him that first day. I can just picture him starting at the corner by the administration offices and walking the breadth of the campus seeing the full reality of what he had gotten himself into. But there he was; day after day. He would slowly but surely pull the vines away and then moved the loose stones away from the wall. With the skill of a surgeon and the patience of Job, he would begin to chip away dirt and the bits of remaining mortar. Sometimes, when a stone was missing, he would find a stone in the pile of rocks that had tumbled away over time. He would look through the pile and find just the right stone. It seemed that he handled it stone as if it were a gem of value. Then with a small trowel he would put just down just enough mortar to hold the stone, but not too much, so he did not distract from the innate beauty of the stone and its wall. One act at a time, one day at a time, the strength and the beauty of the wall was restored. When he finished it was something to behold. I could almost imagine the original builders of the wall standing with him in pride. I think about that wall every time I read our focal passage for the morning. You heard it read earlier in the service, but let me share it with you again as we seek to hear what God might say to us this morning.

Our focal passage is Ephesians 2:19-22 and reads;
19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

When Beth and I flew back into the United States after our recent trip to Malaysia, I watched an older Asian couple trying to figure out which line they were supposed to get into to go through immigration. Apparently their story was a bit complex, as were their travel document. Several people were trying to help them, but it seemed even those in uniforms were not sure where they belonged. You could see the stress mounting on their faces – and then someone stepped in and with a good word and a great attitude guided them to the right line – the line for US citizens. Their stress melted away to smiles and laughter. They finally knew where they belonged.

In the verses that precede our focal passage Paul has been speaking directly to both the Jewish and the Gentile elements of the church about they belong together and now claims verbiage that would strike home to both – look, he says, because of what Jesus did for you, you are no longer foreigners – a people who do not belong – or an alien – those who are banished to the fringes because they are never seen as truly equal to others in the community. He wanted them to know that regardless of which camp they claimed, they belonged. They were all valued members of God’s household. If they had been in that airport – they would have had a line. For Paul there are no green cards – everyone gets full citizenship. Everyone is equally valued. I think our temptation is to think that peoples place in church are based on their family name or heritage, or what we think they can do or how much we think they can give. This is a myth that minimize so many. Hear me, You belong here! You belong not because of where you come from or what you can do or what you can give, because God values us all and claims us all through our relationship in Christ.

Dr. Arland Hultgreen, a professor at Luther Seminary offers a great perspective this. He states; We are all family, and no one is to be treated as a stranger or alien. Differences in race, class, gender, economic condition, politics, and opinion exist, but they are not barriers to living in unity in Christ. The congregation is a laboratory for the kingdom of God. (1) I believe he is right on the mark. We are called to be the kind of church where everyone belongs – where there are no strangers or outsiders - and where others can see the kingdom of God on grand display.

Paul continues in talking about this household of God in verse 21. It reads that the household is; 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. We hear that Jesus is the cornerstone – and then we are built stone by stone with Christ. In our era, cornerstones have become rather symbolic, proclaiming the original name for the building. It was very different when Paul wrote. The “cornerstone” in ancient building methods had an importance as the stone used by the architect-builder to determine the “lie” of the whole building, so Jesus Christ is the pattern by which the church is being shaped by God. The strength and the nature of the building are set by its conformity to this original plan.(2) With Jesus in place as the cornerstone, God claims you as one of the bricks for his work. You have great value in the eyes of God. God began with the apostles and prophets – and now uses us just the same, brick by brick, stone by stone. You are an essential part of what God is building. My mind’s eye keeps going back to Doug Buttram building that wall. I again picture the care he took in choosing and reshaping each stone to make it fit just right. Can you imagine God taking that kind of intentionality – and claiming that same kind of joy - in finding your place in the building of the kingdom and the Church He calls home?

Our passage finishes; 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. I love this room. Every time I walk in here I am touched and called toward God. I remember walking through some of the great cathedrals of Europe. They are impressive structures built for the glory of God, but this temple is something grander. Paul says that we too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit - that we are being built together to become the very home of God. Bricks are made of clay do not contain God – no matter how it is formed and no matter how impressive the structure where it is used. Stones are just that – still, cold and hard. Bricks and stones can be fashioned into places where God’s people meeting, but God lives not in a place, but in the midst of his people. You are the living stones, the public testimony of the work of Christ – but together our strength – our witness – our impact – is multiplied. It is Christ that joins us together to become the dwelling place of God. Paul chooses his words well. This word “dwelling” he uses is not a reference to a place God visits, but is an indication of permanence. God’s desire is to be permanently at home in the Church and in the midst of our lives.

About three years ago by Dr. Kenneth Carter, Pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC told his congregation; God's temple is in the hearts and lives of a transformed people. When someone comes to worship in a church, they may discover a beautiful sanctuary. And then they meet someone, and there is an acceptance, and a love is shared. And then they/we begin to see the people, and we realize that it is the people who are also the temples, that God is interested in holy places but God is just as interested in holy people. Dr. Walter Shurden, our Baptist Distinctives speaker took a look at this same passage and offers a different voice, He looks back at the grand temple built for God in the heart of Jerusalem and notes;
The new temple is no building at all. It is a much more fragile structure, a much less dependable structure. It is made of the likes of us. We, you and I, are God's temple! What an astounding thought! We are the dwelling place of God! (4)

It is good to celebrate that there are no outsiders in God’s household – that we all have great value in the eyes of God. But in our celebration let us not forget that our challenge is to see the same value in one another – and then to become the kind of family where we are built together – stone by stone – with our strengths and frailties - into a temple – a people – where God lives and it at home. Our call is to live our lives in a way that others can see that together we have become the dwelling place of God. Let the spiritual construction begin!

1 Hultgreen, Arland, J., “Ephesians 2:11-29: Commentary on Second Reading” available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/19/2009&tab=3 on January 14, 2010.
2 Martin, R. P. 1991. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching . John Knox Press: Atlanta
3 Carter, Kenneth. “A Survival Strategy for the Spiritually Homeless,” a sermon preached on August 27, 2006 on Day 1. Available online at http://day1.org/1005-a_survival_strategy_for_the_spiritually_homeless on August 14, 2007
4 Shurden, Walter, “When the Walls Come Tumbling Down,” Baptist History and Heritage, Spring, 2005

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